ABC’s next big-budget drama centres around a gal with the finest threads, sumptuous settings and an attitude to boot.
Essie Davis (The Slap, Cloudstreet) stars as Phryne (pronounced ‘Fry-nee’) Fisher in the 13 part Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries.
Based on the novels by Australian author Kerry Greenwood, the period piece has been brought to life by Fiona Eagger and Deb Cox from Every Cloud Productions.
Eagger tells TV Tonight, that although Miss Fisher is a female sleuth, she is far removed from Miss Marple or Murder, She Wrote.
“She’s a little bit more of an action hero. She’s certainly sexier than Miss Marple. She’s more like The Avengers, she rides a fast car, she has a dagger in her garter, she has a gold pearl-handled pistol, she can do a bit of martial arts, speak many languages. She’s a larger-than-life hero,” she says.
Eagger, who worked with Cox on East of Everything, developed the project after discussions with former ABC Drama Exec Miranda Dear and former ABC Programmer Marena Mantzoufis.
“We were talking about Sunday nights and what was working at the time such as Doctor Who, Robin Hood, and these slightly escapist murders. Then we went into the (period) crime and wondered why Australians don’t tackle that. We know Australians love real-crime such as Underbelly, but why do we never do the drawing room murders? The murder mystery genre?” she asks.
“I remember the original Rush, All The Rivers Run, and Deb worked on Carson’s Law and The Sullivans. But we’d shied away from the period drama, at least at the time we were talking. People had forgotten we were very good at that.”
Eagger and Cox had to wait until the rights to Greenwood’s books, which had been optioned by a British company, had lapsed.
“A lot of my mother’s friends were Phrynne fans and Deb’s daughter Ivy, who was 18 at that point, was also reading a lot of Kerry Greenwood.
“So we had a female lead character who was cross-generational for a family-viewing time, although ours is more M than PG, but you could garner the interest of women from 18 – 70.”
The series features episodic murder mysteries that adhere to a classic genre. The show’s international distributor, which also looks after sales for Midsomer Murders and George Gently, impressed upon them the need to follow genre rules.
“The big thing they said to us was, ‘If you’re going to call this a murder mystery then you have to honour the genre. There are audience expectations.’ Sometimes it’s a why-dunnit, rather than a who-dunnit. But mostly it’s a number of suspects, number of options and then in the end Phrynne will do the denouement and tell us who and why and we go back through all the clues,” she explains.
“So it sticks to that form as much as possible but puts an Australian spin on it and hopefully a freshness to it.”
Although the series is set in the late 1920s, the progressive nature of the central character gives the show a contemporary relevance.
“1927 is post-war, pre-depression and a very important time in terms of women getting the vote, women starting to work. Phrynne represents all of that because she doesn’t believe in marriage, she represents a working class background but has inherited wealth and title,” Eagger says.
“She was born in Australia but also lived in England. So she’s travelled. She can fly a plane –she can do everything!
“The author has a great sense of social justice so underlying every book there are great themes to explore. Whether it’s about public health, women’s rights, the Jewish situation, workers’ strikes on the docks –there’s always something quite meaty behind the fun of solving a murder.”
Recreating the era has been a painstaking task for production departments.
“We wanted the wardrobe to be authentic, we wanted the haircuts, the vehicles, we wanted to create a world you are invited into and that you don’t get pulled back from. The music is authentic to the period.
“Underbelly made a very conscious choice to have different rules of engagement with the audience than we’ve chosen.”
Period Melbourne is also a strong character in the drama, thanks to utilising so many unique locations.
“Melbourne has so many fantastic locations for the 1920s, so we’ve worked with the National Trust to film at Ripponlea, the Como, Melbourne Town Hall, Spotswood Old Pumping Station, Melbourne Trades Hall. And we’ve been to Castlemaine.”
Between 50 – 100 shots per episode have been digitally enhanced to remove modern trappings such as white lines on roads, and TV aerials, as well as inserting smoke stacks, and backdrops of Melbourne in the 1920s.
Eagger’s love of detail hasn’t been easy to realise within an ABC budget.
“You want to see the beautiful cars, the wallpaper, the interior designs, the lovely wardrobe. So it’s a celebration of all those things but of course they come at a price and it pushes everyone. So it’s about honouring that but managing it within the confines of the budget,” she says.
“I just love getting production value on screen and saying ‘Yes! Let’s set an episode on a steam train! Let’s all go to the country!’ Then everyone says ‘We can’t afford it!’ So I say ‘We’ll find a way. Let’s have them fly a Tiger Moth!’
“So you need people who will want to go on that journey and will push the boundaries and not say ‘No I can’t do that.’”
Series directors include Tony Tilse, Kate Dennis, Emma Freeman, Daina Reid, David Caesar and Clayton Jacobson. The principal cast includes Nathan Page, Ashleigh Cummings and Hugo Johnstone-Burt.
Then there is a stellar guest cast.
“Miriam Margolyes, Miranda Otto, Peter O’Brien, Anna McCormack, Vince Colosimo, Deborah Kennedy, Alison Whyte, Anna McGahan, Roz Hammond, Tammy McIntosh, Nicholas Bell, Robert Grubb -it just goes on!
“(Casting Director) Alison Telford from the ABC has been brilliant.”
In addition to the mystery element there is romance and a “cheeky” humour throughout.
“Murder mysteries are a slightly heightened world. There’s a love of language and it’s more Oscar Wilde or Noel Coward so getting that right in the scripts has been really tricky,” she explains.
“Essie’s got a theatre background so she’s brilliant. We’re so lucky to have her, she’s sensational.
“This feels good. It feels like what we’re making is honouring Kerry’s books. So we just hope it comes together and the audience feels like that.”
Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries premieres 8:30pm Friday February 24th on ABC1.